Real Steel: My Fair Robot

What is it about boxing that makes it so attractive to moviemakers and audiences? Most sports movies lead up to the Big Game or the Big Fight, where our hero will either win or lose. And yet these limited plot outcomes don’t prevent us from getting all worked up about them anyway. We appreciate the parts played by luck, pluck, and preparation. It’s drama at its most elemental—two gladiators taking their places under the bright lights. We can’t take our eyes off them.

Even when they’re robots. Yes, I said robots.

Real Steel magines a world in the not-too-distant future when robots take the place of human boxers. And somehow the fans get as excited about spilled 10W-30 as they once got about spilled blood. But let that go. No sense making too many demands of this mix of silliness, sentimentality, and melodrama. Chekhov it’ ain’t. But I liked it. Let’s call it the guilty-pleasure-of-the-month.

And besides, regardless of the movie’s slogan (“Courage is stronger than steel”), the movie’s not so much about boxing as it is about parenting, which requires a different kind of courage than boxing. Or maybe not.

That’s right, parenting.

Hugh Jackman is Charlie, the ne’er-do-well father and broken-down boxer who years ago abandoned his wife and child. Now that his ex-wife has died, his son comes, at least temporarily, to him. He barely acknowledges Max, played well by Dakota Goyo, whose smirky smile reminds you of a young Edward Furlong.

What about the other actors? It’s not the kind of movie where the acting matters beyond a certain level of believability. Hope Davis does her patented turn as repressed-middle-aged-matron. James Rebhorn is older-man-with-authority. Evangeline Lilly is the overlooked-love-interest. If there is a standout, it’s Kevin Durand, who plays a corrupt boxing promoter with a bristling good-ole-boy menace.

But the kid is story’s catalyst. Think f it. The kid’s mother dies. His father doesn’t want him. His rich aunt will take him into her home not out of love but out of obligation to her dead sister. No one really sees him. No one really gets him. Until he finds Atom, the sparring bot, a training robot that’s programmed to mirror the moves of its opponents.
Among the best scenes in the movie is the one where the young Max first trades mirror-moves with Atom. A child is supposed to emulate the parent. Here Max becomes the parent and Atom the child. After all, Max gives Atom life, washes him, teaches him, puts him in the ring with opponents who are twice his size. Well, OK, the parenting theme gets lost pretty quickly. Er, I guess that depends on what kind of upbringing you  had.

Most often, American movies are about desire and the obstacles that must be overcome
to achieve that desire. But sometimes, they’re about characters who must learn to desire the right thing. That’s the kind of movie Real Steel is. And that’s why Hugh Jackman’s Charlie is finally the character whose arc is the strongest. He’s the one who travels farthest—from zero to hero, as they say. But it’s strange that his transformation depends on the robot’s success (the literal embodiment of deus ex machina). Even when Charlie chooses to take the controls (you’ll see what I mean if you see the movie), he’s not the one taking the punches. So it’s hard to fully appreciate the success of his comeback. Still, as a robot variation on Rocky, the ending satisfies.

One odd thing. There were moments in the boxing scenes when it occurred to me that
the robots’ moves were more like real boxers’ moves than in most other movies. Real boxing is too fast to depict accurately. But these robots are, well, robots, so their moves have to be fast. It’s odd to realize that it took a lot of CGI and puppetry to put a realistic-looking boxing match on screen.  Well, CGI, puppetry, and Sugar Ray Leonard as the movie’s boxing consultant. Yeah, that helps.

I’ll admit that I like boxing, so I may like this movie more than it deserves to be liked. My workout shirt is printed with two words: “Get up.” They’re the most meaningful words a boxer can hear. Hell, they’re the most meaningful words anyone can hear. And finally, I guess that’s the movie’s truest theme. No matter how many times you’re knocked down, get up. We go to the movies sometimes to be reminded of simple lessons like that, to see them played out inside the safe frame of a movie screen so that we can carry them back into our messy unframed lives. And for me, that’s reason enough to see Real Steel.

P.S. The Sleeper wouldn’t have been caught dead at this movie. And if you tell anyone I was there—or that I liked it—I will deny everything.

P.P.S. You never got me down, Ray. You hear me? You never got me down.